Friday, November 17, 2023

The Shadow of Death

This is an edited and expanded version of the sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

The Shadow of Death

The Third Sunday of Advent

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Yesterday was St Martin's Day. In the past in some parts of the Church, this marked the beginning of an extended season of Advent. Although we do not follow that practice nowadays, our readings and our service nevertheless take on an Advent theme. In our reading this morning, St Paul tells the Thessalonians that he does not want them to be uninformed about those who have died. This, he writes, is so that they will not grieve as others do who have no hope.

St Paul raises two issues here. Firstly, what has happened to those who have died? And, secondly, just how are we as believers to grieve?

In response to the first issue of what has happened to those who have died, the standard Christian response is that those who have died have gone to heaven to be with God. In heaven, we believe, they enjoy a blissful existence, hence the phrase, ‘they have gone to a better place’.

So secondly, when it comes to the question of how we should grieve as believers, while understandably we miss those who have died and passed away and feel their loss, we can be happy for them - or so the argument goes. This even leads to Christians saying that funerals can be a time of rejoicing.

If all this is what St Paul believed, it is not what he says, not here at least, and certainly not as most Christians mean it. We need to backtrack a bit and ask why St Paul writes what he does. A clue to the explanation lies, in fact, in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25:1-13). Jesus tells his disciples the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids to teach them that they should always be ready for his return. He warns the disciples that he will return at any time and at a time when they least expect it

So, after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, the first believers took Jesus at his word and expected his return at any time. It was imminent in their minds. Jesus was coming soon, and when he came, he would bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, as we pray for every week in the Lord's Prayer.

When Jesus came back, they believed, he would judge the living and the dead; he would give eternal life to those who had trusted in him, and he would punish those who had not. This hope of Jesus’ return was a central part of their message. It was not something peripheral to it but belonged to the very core of the Gospel they preached. It followed that if Jesus was coming soon, the majority of believers would still be alive when he did. Their focus, then, was not on those who had died and passed away, but on those who were still alive and being prepared for when their Lord came back. Those who were still alive had to be ready for his return.

As time went on, however, Christ’s return seemed to have been delayed and the issue of what would happen to those who had died became much more pressing. Would those who had died before Christ’s return miss out?

St Paul is anxious to reassure the Thessalonian who were worried that this would be the case, and the answer he gives is perhaps not quite what we would expect. St Paul does not say that those who have died have gone to be with Jesus in heaven; he says that when he returns those who have died will rise to meet Christ first, and it only after he has gathered up those believers who have died that he will then gather those who are alive to himself. We do not grieve for those who have died as others do who have no hope, St Paul writes, because Christ, when he comes, will come for them too. The hope that St Paul talks about remained firmly the hope of Christ's return: Christ’s return to us and for us.

The hope was not that we would go to be with Christ in heaven but that Christ would come to us on earth. It was possible to hold onto this hope while believers thought that Christ could return at any time. As time passed, however, and Christ did not return, believers had to face the reality that Jesus was not going to be coming back any time soon.

So, there developed in the Church what we can describe as a two-sided hope. Firstly, the fundamental hope remained that Christ would one day return, and believers’ hopes remained focused on this expectation. It was then, and only then, that our salvation would be complete. Believers in Christ would be rewarded with the gift of eternal life; sinners would be punished; and the kingdom of God instated here on earth.

Secondly, in the meantime, however, those who died before Christ’s return would go to be with Jesus in heaven to wait for the Day of Judgment and Christ's return. This received some refinement over the years, but you get the general idea! Heaven was not the destination; heaven was the waiting room. It is here that believers waited with Christ for the Day when God would raise them, and Christ would take them with him when returned to earth in glory.

This hope of the return of Christ was not just about the future; it affected how believers saw their life in this world in the present. This life, they believed, was a preparation for the life to come. They saw this life as transient, temporary, and testing. This life, in other words, was about God getting us ready to live, as we saw last week, in the City of God.

In the old funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer, there are these words:

‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?’

Full of misery! Believers in the past were far more realistic in their assessment of life in this world. Their hope, as a result, was very much for a better life in the future when Christ’s Kingdom came and Christ returned. This life here and now was a preparation for it, but the life of the world to come would only be fully ours when Christ returned.

This, however, has all changed in today’s Church and for most believers. It is, though, only comparatively recently that it has changed. The reason it has changed is because we have largely given up on the idea of Christ's return. This is why we never talk about it. On those occasions when we cannot avoid talking about it, such as at Advent, we talk about it without any expectation that it will actually happen. What is more, we have also largely rejected the idea of any future judgment. God is just too loving and too nice. Our belief now is that we are all, each and everyone of us, going to a better place, regardless of what we do or fail to do here.

So, what about here? Well, we find all this talk of life being short and full of misery and of being cut down like a flower far too depressing for words, and far too depressing for us modern day Christians to believe. Rather than worrying about the future and what will happen to us when we die, our focus is on getting the most out of life now. In any case, we do not think we have to worry about the future, for the simple reason that there is nothing to worry about. God is going to look after us anyway. Instead of worrying about the future, we want to make the most of this life for ourselves and for our family, and, if we have any time left over, to use that time in making this world a better place for our children to grow up in.

Our goal now as believers is to enjoy this life and all that we have, following our hopes and ambitions in this world, doing what good we can as we do. The problem for Christians, of course, is that this does not sound very different to what everyone else is doing. Where does God fit into all this?

I think God fits into modern-day Christians’ hopes and dreams in three ways. Firstly, as a way to justify our goals and give them divine authority. Secondly, in helping us to achieve those goals. And thirdly, by being there for us when we do not achieve them or find it hard to do so.

As believers in the 21st century, we need to see that all this leaves us with a very different faith and hope to that of the Thessalonians and to that of previous generations of believers.

Now I am not asking you this morning to choose between these two different ways of seeing things, just to see the difference. To see the difference between the sort of faith expressed, for example, in the Old Book of Common Prayer and the faith of most modern-day believers.

Rather than having a hope centred on Christ and what God is going to do in the future when Christ returns, our focus has become on ourselves in the present and what God can do for us now. We often use the same words and phrases as they used in the past, but we have given them a very different context and certainly a very different meaning. If we can see this, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Over Advent and the time leading up to it, I hope to examine more fully the direction I believe we should be going in. But in closing this morning, let me just ask briefly, what practical difference does this make? What I have been saying can seem very theoretical and perhaps even irrelevant. What difference, if any, would it make if we regained the perspective of the past?

The first difference it would make to us is that we would stop deceiving ourselves! We who live in the 21st century have a narrative of progress. Things are better now, we think, than they were in the past, and what is more, they are only going to go getting better. We are so much wiser, cleverer, and richer than previous generations. They lived in ignorance, superstition, and fear. We know better! But is that really true? Well, it is certainly true that some things are better materially now than they were.

I, for one, prefer living in a world with anesthetic, antibiotics, and vaccines, for example. But let me ask this question. If things are so much better nowadays, why doesn't it feel like it?

Only this week, here in Christ Church, I was recorded as part of a video for secondary school students to attempt to give them some hope when they are feeling suicidal. Because, as you will have read, suicides among secondary school students have risen, and risen dramatically. What is all the talk amongst young people today? It is of mental health issues. Huge numbers of young girls, for example, are engaging in self-harm and in self-destructive behaviour. Our material achievements have resulted in our spiritual poverty. And so, blinded by our material wealth, we continue to gamble on everything being okay in the end as we concentrate on trying to enjoy our life in this world now, and not doing a very good job of it.

How can we talk of a narrative of progress when there are two major wars taking place in our world, sucking in the nations of the world? Who would have thought that after two world wars we would see war in Europe and war in the Middle East? And these are just the wars we are talking about. Any thought that we give now for the well-being of others is for well-being in the present, and we are not even achieving that.

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope’, St Paul writes.

We believers do grieve, we grieve as people who know that death is terrible. Death is an enemy still waiting to be destroyed. In this life, in the present, we, like all people, are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Death isn't just something that happens at the end of life; it is a powerful enemy that casts its shadow over the whole of life and the whole of human endeavor. But while a powerful enemy that is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, we as believers face that enemy with hope.

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not walk through it alone. We walk through it with the Lamb who is our shepherd, who will lead us to the springs of the waters of the river of life (Revelation 7:17). We walk through the valley of the shadow of death with the One who has conquered death and who will one day seal that victory with his return.

And so today, as we remember those whose lives were cruelly cut short in war, and as we think of the power of death, we think too of the power of Christ, and we rejoice in him and look for his coming again. We rejoice in his triumph and his victory over sin and death, a victory in which one day we will share.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!


Monday, November 06, 2023

The City of God

This is an edited and expanded version of the sermon for All Saints’ Sunday. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

The City of God

All Saints Sunday

Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

In our first reading this morning from the book of Revelation, St John describes his vision of heaven. He sees a great multitude standing before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice:

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:10)

St John is told that those who are standing before the throne will hunger and thirst no more. The Lamb will be their shepherd and will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

It is a wonderful vision. It expresses the hope that whatever suffering we may experience here and now in this world, it will one day come to an end. I think that in the minds of most believers that day will be when we die and go to be with God in heaven. We need, however, to read to the end of the book of Revelation. For St John’s vision ends not in heaven, but with a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-2). At the end of the book of Revelation, St John sees the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 22:1-2).

I mentioned earlier the stained-glass window at the back of the church, the West window. The imagery is from St John's vision of the New Jerusalem. The window depicts the Lamb and the river of life with the tree of life on either side of it with twelve different kinds of fruits and with its leaves for the healing of the nations. The window seeks to express our ultimate hope as believers of receiving eternal life as we drink from the river of life. It is to the river in the City of God that the Lamb is leading his people. It is this City, the New Jerusalem, that is both our hope and our home. So, as we leave church every Sunday, we see the hope that is meant to guide us and inspire us in the week ahead.

We are, of course, in the area of vision and metaphor, a place where language is insufficient and ultimately breaks down as it tries to describe the indescribable. This image, however, of the City of God as our hope and our home is not only to be found in the book of Revelation. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

St Paul also uses the image of the city to express our hope. He tells the Galatians that the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she, he writes, is our mother (Galatians 4:26). St Paul tells the Philippians that even now our citizenship is in heaven. St Paul writes:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.’ (Philippians 3:20–21)

All this is very important because it reminds us that our hope is not for a disembodied state in heaven, but for our bodies to be renewed and transformed to live in the New Jerusalem in a new heaven and earth.

St John writes in our second reading:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

The Resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples not as a disembodied spirit, not as a ghost, but as a real human being with a body (Luke 24:36-43). You could see the scars and place your hand where the spear went into his side. He ate and drank with his disciples. Our hope, then, is that we too will have a resurrected body and that we will be like him.

St John tells us that those who have this hope purify themselves even as he is pure. In other words, our hope for the future will have an effect on how we live here in the present.

Three things, I think, follow from this. Firstly, that the cities that we live in now are not our home. Secondly, that our hope is to journey to the eternal city, the City of God. And thirdly, that the journey begins now.

Any of you who have listened to my Reflections on RTHK Radio 4 this week (and yes, that is a shameless plug; they are still available online and in the Facebook Group!) will have heard me quote St Augustine. St Augustine, a very important saint, wrote these words in what was to become one his major works:

‘Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.’ (Book 14, chapter 28)

The book, The City of God, was to be a foundational text for the Church as it faced the challenges of the Middle Ages. It has continued to be influential since. We all have to choose which of these two cities we want to belong to. Do we want to be citizens of the heavenly city, the City of God, or not?

The first believers believed that the City or Kingdom of God would come in their lifetime. As time went on, however, it became clear that the Kingdom of God was not going to come in their lifetime. And the Church and believers had to adjust and think through what it meant to live as believers in this world, living in this world while belonging to another, the one they hoped would come one day.

While this world hated and persecuted them, as Jesus said it would, it was fairly easy to remember that their allegiance was to the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whose Kingdom does not belong to this world (John 18:36). But when the city of Rome declared for the Kingdom of God, life became more complicated. Popes and bishops, for example, became powerful earthly rulers, and the Church became a major force in earthly political, social, and economic life. Bishops still sit in the British House of Lords, a leftover, a remnant from the time when such positions actually mattered.

Not all in the Church were happy with the accommodation the Church came to with earthly political power. Some saw it as a compromise, at best, and apostasy, at worst. It was in reaction to this accommodation with earthly political power that the monastic movement was born with its desire to escape from this world and to live a purer life separated from it.

Whatever we think of the role the Church has had in the world in the past, it is clear that the Church’s political power and position in this world is coming to an end. The power and influence the Church has had in human society is passing away. Indeed, in many places where the Church formerly exercised political power, it has largely now gone.

Many in the Church find it hard to let go of what the Church once had; others, bewail and mourn its passing and plan and plot how they may get it back. But the loss of what some miss and others try to regain provides us with the chance to rediscover something that has in fact been true all along, something true believers never forgot: this world is not our home; our citizenship is above. We belong to the City of God. This realization should be a cause for rejoicing. It enables us to reassess how we live here in this world, now so openly and increasingly hostile to us and our faith.

It is here that another great book can help us. John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. He wrote it while in prison in Bedford, where I ministered for a number of years and my brother still ministers today. When visiting Bedford, Winnie and I frequently pass the place where John Bunyan was imprisoned. Winnie had her picture taken last summer in a pulpit that John Bunyan preached from. You will have to ask her if you want to see it! The Pilgrim’s Progress has been a very influential and popular book, being translated into 200 languages.

John Bunyan imagines the Christian life as a journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. He describes how Christian, the pilgrim in the story, faces temptations, difficulties, and challenges on his way. Bunyan imagines the Christian life as a journey, as a pilgrimage, from the earthly city to the City of God. He challenges us to see that the cities of this world, the cities of destruction, are not our home. We are not to live by their attitudes and values. We are to live even now by the values and attitudes of the Celestial City, the City of God.

To put it another way: we are all expats here! Here in Hong Kong, we are familiar with the concept of the ‘expat’ because we have had expats living here since Hong Kong was established. I have lived here quite a few years myself, but people still see me as a foreigner. Obviously, they do! You can tell just by looking at me and listening to me that I do not come from Hong Kong. You can see that I am a foreigner.

So, here’s the thing: can people tell simply by looking at us and listening to us that we do not belong here, but belong to the City of God? Can they tell that we are foreigners here?

As Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress discovered, finding the way to the City of God is not always easy. Today is All Saints’ Sunday. You were probably wondering when I was going to get round to that! It is in finding the way to the Celestial City, the City of God, that the saints can help us. They have made the journey and now stand before the throne of God and the Lamb. They show us not only that it is possible to get to the City of God, but how to get there and how to overcome the obstacles on the way.

Now I know that many in the Church are a bit wary of the saints. They ask, don’t we have God? Don’t we have our Lord Jesus Christ? Don’t we have the Holy Spirit? Aren’t they enough? Why do we need the saints? We need to be very careful here, because while it can sound as though we are being very spiritual in saying this, it can also be a form of spiritual arrogance. After all, we have God, we have our Lord Jesus Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit, but, the Bible tells us, we still need each other and we still need the Church. As believers who say the Creeds and mean them, we also believe in the ‘communion of the saints’. This means that we are all joined together, the Church past, present, and future. The saints are God’s gift to the Church.

In his letters, St Paul tells those to whom he writes to imitate him. He presents himself as an example to believers of faith, as a role model for them to copy, a living visual aid to help them on their journey (1 Corinthians 4:16-17; Philippians 3:17). St Paul is critical of those who see leaders such as himself as celebrities, but he knows the value of guides.

On Reflections, this week, I was talking about some of the saints who can act as spiritual guides for us on our journey, who also model faith for us. Saints like Saint Augustine, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Saint Monica, Saint Hildegard, and Saint Catherine.

St Paul writes in Philippians that he is writing to them so that they may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which, he says, ‘you shine like stars in the world’ (Philippians 2:15). The world is in darkness, and while we shine like stars in the world, finding our way through the darkness can be challenging. God has given us the saints as guides to help us on our way.

But the journey must begin! We, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, have to leave the security and comfort of life in the City of Destruction and make our way to the City of God. I have referred to two classic books this morning. Let me close by referring to one more. I do not know how many of you have heard of Thomas a Kempis and his book, The Imitation of Christ. It is one of the best-selling books of all time. So, if you have not heard of it, look it up! It was written in the 15th century. In it, Thomas a Kempis wrote this:

‘For a small income, a long journey is undertaken; for everlasting life, many will scarce once lift a foot from the ground.’ (Book 3, chapter3)

Thomas a Kempis is making the point that we are happy to go on long journeys when there is some material gain for us in this world, but that many of us will not even take the first step towards the City of God.

As we read and think today of those who did lift a foot off the ground, those saints who have gone before us, and who now are standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, let us too begin our journey. Or, if we have begun it, let us press on with it, and not be discouraged or give up, but follow their example and journey towards the City of God. For the Lamb will be our shepherd too and will lead us with all his saints to the river of the water of life.

May we, then, with hope faithfully follow him and all those who have already made the journey and who now stand before the throne and the Lamb.